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Mass Consumerism, Warhol, and 1960s America

Warhol’s art celebrates the consumerism and advertising that inundated American culture in the 1960s. See learning resources here.

Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola [3], 1962, casein on canvas, 176.2 x 137.2 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts), a Seeing America video Speakers: Alejo Benedetti and Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Looking at a large painting from 1962, called Coca Cola 3. - [Alejo] This is Andy Warhol's moment, this is him thinking, "I want to do a painting of something that stands in" "for who we are as Americans", and there's no bigger icon than Coca Cola. - [Steven] And it is big, it's about 6 feet tall, it's the size of a full length portrait of George Washington. But although this is painted with a brush by hand, it's not painted the way that an 18th century portrait would be painted. It's painted in an incredibly flat way as if to mimic the process of printing. - [Alejo] It's all about the removal of the artist hand. It's not about making this beautiful painting in the traditional sense. - [Steven] Art had always been about the exceptional, Art had always been about the unique and here, Warhol has flipped that on it's head and is painting the most ordinary. - [Alejo] This is what excited him. This idea that the everyday is exceptional and so he turns to the most iconic thing and paints in a way that removes the artist hand and makes it seem very ordinary. But in doing that he's also making it tremendously accessible. - [Steven] And democratic, this is an art that is in everybody's experience. There's nothing rare here. We've all held a Coke bottle, we've all heard the sound when you pop the top of a Coke bottle. You can hear the bubbles. This is doing what advertising does but it's relocated it into the intellectual realm of art and art history. - [Alejo] It's so accessible to everyone and that is why it's powerful. That is why he gravitated towards it. - [Steven] No matter how much money you have, you can't buy a better Coke. You're Coke is the same Coke as Liz Taylor's, your Coke is the same as the bum on the corner. So he's taking a subject that is of our everyday experience and he's putting it on canvas. He's putting it within a frame. He's asking us to look at it differently even though the bottle itself, its shape, its lines, its forms are things that we're completely familiar with. - [Alejo] This is a pivotal moment. He's just ended his career as a commercial artist doing illustrations for fashion and for other advertisements and he decides he wants to operate in the fine art world. For him that's this huge transition and the way that he's going to do it is by exploring these really iconic symbols and iconic brands. In 1961, 1962, he does a series of Coke bottles. This is number three, but the first two were very abstract, very gestural. You see the artist hand. This is the moment when Andy Warhol becomes the Warhol that we know. - [Steven] And that's because he got rid of the handmade. He got rid of the painterly process oriented canvas. He's showing us here a painting that seems as if it has been printed by a machine. So we're not looking at a representation of a Coke bottle. We're looking at a representation of an ad for a Coke bottle that has within it it's own representation of a Coke bottle. - [Alejo] This is also one of the first works that he's done in that vane. So it's not perfect. If you actually look at it, you can see moments where he's made a little mistake and so he goes back in and he covers it up with some paint. But then down at the very bottom, you can see there are little drips of paint. That's something that later on, as he moves onto a mechanical process using screen printing the signs of the artist hand, that goes away. But then that also makes it more democratic. - [Steven] Warhol was not the first artist to use Coke bottles in his art. Robert Rauschenberg had done it a few years earlier and in fact, by 1962, by the time this painting was made Warhol had actually purchases a Rauschenberg. This is an artist who's really knowledgeable about new directions in American art. - [Alejo] The late 50s, the early 60s, there's this culture of access. There's so much stuff around. And so naturally artist are going to look at what's around them. - [Steven] And so Warhol is creating an art that is celebrating consumer culture, that is representing the visual stimulus that people are receiving constantly in their daily lives. Every time you open a magazine, see an advertisement in a bus or a subway, or on a billboard, Coca Cola is there. - [Alejo] It's so ever present and this idea of branding and creating a symbol and the power of a symbol becomes essential to his work and so much to the point that he himself becomes the Andy Warhol brand. We immediately understand that shock of crazy hair. - [Steven] Creating a cult of fame, creating a performance art out of fame itself. But art had for so long been about beauty. It had been about creating with fine craftsmanship. The complexity of the human body and here it feels absurdly flat as if it's not only the canvas surface that's two dimensional but the subject itself is two dimensional. - [Alejo] There's some folks who feel it needs to be amazingly done, the technical skill needs to be outstanding for it to be a good work of art or a powerful work of art and part of the conversation that we can have about a work like this is that what he's doing is smart. What he's doing has all of this potency of powerful ideas. So it's less about how perfectly he can put it onto canvas, it's more about all the other conversations that are had as a result of that. (piano music)